All across the country, communities are organising themselves to stop their friends and neighbours from being deported. From lobbying the Home Office to foiling dawn raids, the resistance will stop at nothing to keep failed asylum seekers safe in Britain. By Rachel Stevenson and Harriet Grant
‘We had our own little code to warn them it was a dawn raid and to get out. There’s more than one way of getting out of the flats – there’s two staircases and two lifts, so you could play games if you knew how. If we were a thorn in their flesh, then good.”
Sixty-seven-year-old Jean Donnachie flashes a mischievous smile as she describes the tactics she and her neighbours used every day to thwart immigration officers trying to arrest asylum seekers on her estate in Glasgow. A grandmother and former cashier who has lived on the Kingsway for 20 years, she makes an unlikely resistance fighter. But when she talks about how the estate took on the Home Office, there is a gleam of defiance in her eyes.
At first sight, the Kingsway seems an unwelcoming place. Wind whips around the 15-storey tower blocks, the windows in the lobby doors are broken, the corridors are gloomy and bare. Remnants of police incident tape flicker from lampposts and prominent surveillance cameras add an air of menace to its pathways. There is little to dispel the sense that this is one of Britain’s forgotten pockets of poverty.
But when hundreds of asylum seekers were placed there to live – often for years – while their cases were processed, they were warmly embraced. “We had been really going downhill – a lot of antisocial families were being put here. But after a year of the asylum seekers coming, the atmosphere became completely different,” Donnachie says. “These people couldn’t do enough for you, and I thought this was wonderful – it was like going back to when I was a child and you could leave the key in the door and if you needed help someone would come round.”
The estate became home for hundreds of families escaping persecution and torture in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Algeria, Uganda and Congo. Most had their request for asylum in the UK turned down, and when the Home Office began coming to the estate at 5am to remove them, Donnachie and the rest of the residents looked on in horror. “It was like watching the Gestapo – men with armour, going in to flats with battering rams. I’ve never seen people living in fear like it,” says Donnachie. “I saw a man jump from two storeys up when they came for him and his family. I stood there and I cried, and I said to myself, ‘I am not going to stand by and watch this happen again.'”
She got together with her friend Noreen and organised the residents into daily dawn patrols, looking out for immigration vans. When the vans arrived, a phone system would swing in to action, warning asylum seekers to escape.
The whole estate pitched in, gathering in large crowds in the early-morning dark to jeer at immigration officials as they entered the tower blocks. On more than one occasion, the vans left the estate empty – the people they had come for had got out in time and were hidden by the crowd. The estate kept this up for two years until forced removals stopped.
But what happened on the Kingsway is not unique. Over the past few years there has been a growing resistance to the government’s attempts to deport failed asylum seekers. From Manchester, from Sheffield, from Belfast, from Bristol, the Home Office is being bombarded with requests from British people all over the country asking for asylum seekers to be given another chance.
One reason why deportations are being challenged is that, despite reports to the contrary, many asylum-seeking families have successfully integrated. Inefficiencies in the system have meant cases have taken years to process, giving families, in particular, the chance to put down roots. Many of their children were born in Britain, go to school here and have close friendships with local children. The government does not allow asylum seekers to work, so many put in hours of voluntary work to occupy their time. They have forged strong links with locals, who have helped them fight to stay.
They believe this resistance is now paying off. Under pressure to speed up removals, the government has introduced a new system for processing claims and is clearing a backlog of up to 450,000 cases. It is called the Legacy Case Resolution Programme, and the latest available figures from the Home Office show that at least a third of people going through it are given leave to remain. In Scotland, more than 80% of these “legacy” cases are winning asylum status. In order to get status under the programme, applicants must show they have local support. For many communities, this is a victory.
Donnachie and her neighbours are now celebrating as families on the estate get good news. Safia, a mother of three and a refugee from Pakistan’s tribal region, is sure that without her friends she would have been sent back. “They were not asylum seekers but they want to help us. They used to come out every morning to protect us. If they didn’t raise their voice for us, maybe we wouldn’t have got our status.” After more than five years in the UK, Safia and her children can stay permanently.
Donnachie is proud of their achievement. “If what we did took early mornings, standing in the cold, standing in the rain, well, it was well worth it. It all came to a fantastic end and I’m a happy woman, and a better woman for it,” she says.
The struggle on the Kingsway has formed part of a Scotland-wide fight against detentions and deportations that is still going on for many under threat of removal.
Just a few miles away, for example, volunteers have taken over an old cornershop and turned it in to a hub of activity helping hundreds of families to stay in the UK. Known as Unity, it keeps a register of asylum seekers coming in and out of the local Home Office building, where they must, by law, report regularly. It is while reporting that many are detained and taken to a detention centre. If they don’t come back to Unity after reporting, staff at Unity raise the alarm and begin a campaign to release them.
“The idea was that there would be local people right outside the Home Office to help asylum seekers if they were detained,” explains Phil Jones, one of Unity’s founders. The strategy seems to work – a whiteboard on the wall lists names of people in detention centres awaiting deportation, but scrawled next to almost all of them are triumphant updates such as “FLIGHT STOPPED!!!” and “BACK IN GLASGOW!!!”. Up to 50 families a week in Glasgow are now getting permanent leave to remain.
But it is not just in Scotland that asylum seekers have found sanctuary in unlikely places. At the back of the Asda car park in Bury, Greater Manchester, is the Mosses community centre. Inside, along with the sewing group and the creche, Sue Arnall is working hard to protect the asylum-seeking families in the area. Born and bred in Bury and proud of it, the retired teacher was horrified to learn that children in her town were living in fear of being sent to countries some of them had never even visited. Like Donnachie, she felt compelled to act.
She and other women at the community centre mobilised local support, organising marches, getting local schools on board, barraging the local MP and helping asylum seekers with their legal cases. “Most of the children are safe now,” she says, “but not all of them. And there are new ones arriving all the time who we need to fight for.”
Families here are also benefiting from the legacy programme, but not until after years at the hands of a system taht Arnall says is cruel. “It is set up to believe that you’re corrupt or that you’re an economic migrant – rather than asking about what made people leave their homes and their families. These people are fleeing for their lives and, as humane people, we should make room for them.”
She is certain their protests played a part in getting the legacy programme started. “I think we’ve made it very hard for the Home Office to remove families that are settled. And every MP up and down the country will know that, because they will have been lobbied in the way we’ve lobbied ours. There must have been pressure to sort this out in a humane way, but to keep it quiet because if the Daily Mail finds out about this, it will be unpopular. I think they are wrong. The government should be promoting the positive aspects of having refugees in your community.”
This belief is echoed in other parts of the country. In the Shetlands, islanders came together to stop a resident Burmese family being deported, spending months demonstrating until the Minn family won the right to stay. “We won’t put up with this sort of injustice here,” Brian Smith, one of the campaigners, says. “The Home Office only seems to care about what the gutter press thinks, and doesn’t want to listen to the rest of us.”
In Belfast, the plight of two Nigerian families facing deportation united both sides of a society scarred by sectarianism. Campaigners mustered support across Northern Ireland, but the families were not allowed to stay, leaving the community furious. They, too, say the government is pandering to one side of the asylum debate.
Encouraging these local groups is the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns (NCADC). Emma Ginn, one of the NCADC volunteers, holds workshops all over the country on how to fight Home Office decisions. “I can’t prove it, I can’t quantify it, but I’ve been doing this for four years and I know campaigns do work,” Ginn says. “There are people in Britain who wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for a campaign. We have to keep fighting decisions.”
But as well as resisting deportations, another aspect of government asylum policy is under attack from British people – that of leaving failed asylum seekers destitute in the UK. Apart from families with children, most people lose their accommodation and benefits once their case is refused, as government rules dictate there must be “no recourse to public funds” for those it believes are “bogus”. Failed asylum seekers are told to leave the country voluntarily or face being forcibly removed. Thousands are too frightened to return, and it can take years for the Home Office to arrange a forced removal, leaving them homeless and destitute in Britain. There is, however, a growing movement of individuals and church groups helping failed asylum seekers eke out an existence here, feeding and housing them after they have been told they have no right to stay.
One such operation can be found in the centre of Sheffield every Wednesday. As shoppers bustle through the busy streets, a band of benign-looking middle-class retirees sit behind desks in the back room of a church handing out envelopes to waiting asylum seekers. They contain £20 in cash, most of it gathered from church collections. For many, it is all they have to live on.
Organising it all is Robert Spooner, a former engineer, who abandoned all plans for a restful retirement when he heard about the destitute asylum seekers in his city. His life is now devoted to raising money for them, believing the government is wrongly denying people fleeing persecution the right to sanctuary in Britain. “Some of the people living on the streets here can’t go back,” he says. “You can imagine what would happen to people going back to Zimbabwe if they were MDC members, or to Iran if they are lesbian or gay, or if they are on the wrong side of a war lord in Afghanistan. These people face real danger.”
Tendero is one of those who would rather be destitute in Britain than face persecution, torture and possibly worse, in his homeland of Zimbabwe. He was a successful businessman until his involvement with the MDC party led to threats on his life. “I thought if I went to England, then I might find a fresh start and come back to Zimbabwe when things are OK to help rebuild my country,” he says as he helps out at Spooner’s drop-in centre. His case has failed and he now lives hand-to-mouth in the UK, sleeping on friends’ floors.
“We look to Britain as the champion of human rights but what I have seen is people being treated as less than human. I tell my friends and family back home this is what my life is like, but they don’t believe the British, with the international image they have, are capable of this.”
Spooner is also staggered such a policy exists. Like many of those involved in helping asylum seekers, the 69-year-old is a committed Christian and believes this choice of “leave or starve” is inhumane. “The government is using destitution as a tool to lower the number of asylum seekers here. It’s totally against any moral stand you have,” he says. “It makes me ashamed, ashamed to be British.”
As well as handing out cash, Spooner’s organisation, Assist, also has a system for finding shelter for failed asylum seekers in the suburbs of Sheffield. A retired couple spent their life savings on two houses for Assist to use rent-free, and Assist also has a list of families and individuals who will let failed asylum seekers sleep in their spare rooms. Rachel and Malcolm Savage are GPs who live in Sheffield with their two young daughters and Margaret, a failed asylum seeker from Uganda. She says she cannot return, and was homeless until Assist asked the Savages to take her in. “We have the space and we think that while Margaret is here, we should help her rather than see her sleep in the street. It’s not that we are against the government having a robust immigration system, but there must be a better, more humane way of doing it than this,” says Malcolm.
Groups such as Positive Action in Housing in Glasgow and the BOAZ trust in Manchester also run lists of families and individuals who will house and feed asylum seekers who have been told to leave the country. Similar groups exist in most cities, giving basic sustenance and shelter to people the government wants removed. These networks are now starting to link up, city to city, coordinating their efforts to fight destitution.
The Home Office stands by its system. Those it turns down, it says, have had a fair hearing and have failed to prove they are at risk. It says it must operate a tough removal policy, and that Britain must not support fraudulent claimants.
But Donnachie, Spooner, Jones and Arnall, and many more like them, believe the asylum system is fundamentally unjust. They say Britain is denying asylum to people genuinely in danger. Senior bishops are similarly critical of the system, as is the Independent Asylum Commission, headed by a former appeal court judge, and the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which have both described Britain’s asylum system as shameful. Outrage at the government’s asylum policy spans Britain’s social and political spectrum.
For many communities, asylum seekers are, simply, highly valued citizens they want to hang on to. Arnall looks around the busy, thriving Mosses centre with pride. “This just used to be an old community centre in a poor area. Now it is so rich,” she says, delighted to have families from all over the world leading safe, happy lives in Bury.
And as Donnachie sets up for the weekly women’s group she runs on the Kingsway, she, too, says the benefits are all hers. “We’ve so many people from so many different cultures and places here now,” she says. “We’re the ones who are gaining – wonderful people, wonderful families with children who want to do things for this country. Britain’s going to be a better place for them, not a worse place, so I just don’t know what the problem is.”
Claiming asylum: How the figures add up
There are between 283,500 and 450,000 failed asylum seekers in the UK.
At least 26,000 failed asylum seekers are destitute, living on Red Cross food parcels.
23,430 new claims for asylum were lodged in 2007 and 73% were refused.
Last year, 13,595 failed asylum seekers including their dependents were deported.
During 2006, 3,500 adults and 1,300 children were detained in dawn raids.
Around 27,000 people are put in detention centres every year.
There have been at least 12 suicides in detention centres.
The UK takes 3% of the worldwide refugee population and ranks 14th in the EU for the number of asylum applications
No one monitors what happens to people who are returned.
· Sources: The Home Office, Refugee Council, British Red Cross, Amnesty International, National Audit Office, NCADC